Why can’t the English learn to speak about English?

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady

Clare Foges has written a passionate column in the Times about the dangers posed by linguistic prejudice.

She highlights evidence of discrimination against people, especially young people, whose speech doesn’t fit in. Civil servants who lack the “right accent” are less likely to get promoted, even if they do good work; in industries from law to accountancy, those who don’t sound middle-class enough are less likely to be hired, even if they have good grades; and many professionals give lower ratings to answers delivered in certain varieties of English, even when the content of those answers is good.

As Foges says, people who speak dialects other than standard English “are surrounded by invisible barriers to success, yet we as a nation are too squeamish to say anything about it”. I commend her for raising this injustice, and for her directness in saying that “We do young people no favours by pretending that the way we speak doesn’t matter any more, because it does.” Collectively, we do need to get better at talking about our language and the role it plays in society.

The current situation isn’t just bad for those who are looked down on because of the way they talk. It’s bad for all of us. It means that the legal system is needlessly denying itself valuable talent. It means that the accountancy firms that businesses rely on are carelessly tossing out some of the best recruits available. And it means that we, the taxpayers, are getting poor value for money when mediocrities get ahead in the civil service while more capable public servants are overlooked.

How, then, can we combat this economically and socially ruinous linguistic prejudice? Foges has a simple solution: elocution lessons.

Wait, what?

Yes, she wants to give young people “speech coaching”, to endow them with the diction of the middle classes and the grammar of standard English. The best way to deal with prejudice, it seems, is to eliminate its object.

She briefly considers an alternative proposal – that linguistically prejudiced people should “challenge their biases” – but she isn’t interested. Because, you see, she agrees with them that standard English is better than other dialects. Here’s her argument:

Standard English is best because (the clue is in the name) it is the standard, with rules the vast majority understand. It is the medium through which writers and speakers of the language can achieve maximum clarity and minimum confusion. This is why deviating from it can grate. If people speak sloppily, mangling their grammar and failing to enunciate their words properly, language turns from a window between souls into a wall between them — and swiftly, subconsciously, we label the speaker.

In the spirit of diplomacy, I will try to meet Foges partway on this.

I agree it is important for children to learn standard English – but not because it’s better than other dialects or more precise or more expressive. It’s useful to know because it’s widely used in the public sphere, in business, in academia… in the kind of professions traditionally dominated by people who grew up in well-to-do families that speak standard English.

But standard English didn’t achieve its high social status in some merit-based competition, beating other dialects because of its intrinsically superior grammatical conventions and vocabulary. It got where it is because of William the Conqueror.

Before 1066, the capital of England was Winchester, which had previously been part of the Kingdom of Wessex. Back then, regional differences in English were much bigger than they are today, but the West Saxon variety – spoken in Winchester, the seat of power – looked set to become top dog. After the Norman Conquest, though, the capital was moved to London. The locally spoken Mercian became the high-status dialect, and out of it grew what we now call standard English.

While I bear our friends and neighbours in France no ill will for that ancient act of aggression, I cannot fathom why we in England should let a long-dead Frenchman determine which variety of our own language is best.

Standard English is only standard because of an accident of history. And different dialects are not “deviations” from it, they’re not “sloppy” or “mangled” attempts to speak it: they’re just different. What they lack is not clarity but prestige.

Yes, kids should learn standard English, but they should also learn that English is a family of dialects, related to region, class, and more recently ethnicity. All of these dialects change, including standard English; they influence each other and their borders overlap. (Foges complains about the adoption of Multicultural London English by “teenagers in country towns who desperately want to appear cool”, but changing the way you talk to make yourself come across a certain way is exactly the policy she recommends.)

But if we want to reduce the ill-effects of linguistic prejudice, there’s another side of the coin. Those of us who are perfectly at home with standard English should be careful how much importance we attach to whether others speak like us, especially if we’re in positions where we can help others to advance.

I am an editor. It is literally my job to improve other people’s writing – pretty much always in standard English. I fix typos, I substitute words, I tweak grammar, I rejig paragraphs, trying to help my colleagues come across as clearly and effectively as possible. What I absolutely do not do is judge those of them who are less comfortable than me with the niceties of standard English.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who are good at all sorts of things – and some of them not so good – but I’ve never noticed that their skills and commitment have any correlation with their dialect, accent and enunciation.

So this attitude described by Foges is a lamentable mistake:

When someone says “could of” instead of “could have”, or “pacifically” instead of “specifically”, or “froo” instead of “through”, they are labelled. The interviewer labels them “not sharp enough”. The colleague labels them “not up to it”.

It’s not quite clear whether she shares this attitude herself, but it’s damn clear that she’s not going to do anything to oppose it.

Foges ends by quoting Henry Higgins talking to Eliza Doolittle:

Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds.

But Eliza’s English is no less English than Henry’s. If all our speech were standardised, those mixtures of sounds would be so much less extraordinary, imaginative, and musical.

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  • pauldanon  On September 22, 2021 at 10:50 am

    The German-speaking area has no qualms about having a standard version of the language which must be used in all formal situations, such as school and work.

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